Tony Clark, a city graffiti removal worker, uses a wet abrasive blasting machine to erase graffiti on Covington Street.

They rise before the sun and lace up their boots, readying for a full day’s work ahead. Tony Clark and Eric Ford don’t have to report until 7 a.m., but they are almost always early.

The men are part of a small crew that cleans up the unwanted graffiti on Baltimore buildings, bridges, poles, houses and other infrastructure, a free city service available to all residents.

The graffiti unit, launched in 1990 as a city solution to property vandalism, was cut from the city’s budget under former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young in 2020 but restored a year later after graffiti incidents continued to mount in its absence.

The team has tackled what they estimate to be several thousand service requests, plus the sidewalks, escalators, streetscapes and sign damage they remediate proactively, without formal service requests.

“We have restored whole schools, the ground, glass, brick — everything,” said Clark, who has been working with the Baltimore City graffiti removal unit since 2002. “A lot of people don’t know what we’ve done over the years.”

As part of our Better Baltimore series, we spent a morning with the graffiti removal unit after a reader asked for an update into their work. The series exposes problems in the city and tries to get them fixed, but also highlights people who work everyday to make Baltimore better.

While Baltimore’s problems with trash, recycling and litter tend to dominate discussion, the graffiti removal team’s relative efficiency in the face of immense challenges has flown below the radar. Amid a raging and then-novel pandemic, city officials suspended the cohort in July 2020 and reassigned workers to other tasks to help offset the growing waste accumulation and labor shortfalls plaguing the Department of Public Works. The unit returned in May 2021 with about a year’s worth of graffiti art in the backlog.

Their workload is daunting: Requests for graffiti removal service dropped every year from 2017 to 2020, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis of available 311 data. But calls increased by about 20% in 2021, and the city is on track to exceed that number this year. City officials point to a lingering sense of boredom, mental anguish and restlessness during the pandemic as a driver behind the spike in graffiti tags.

The unit aims to tackle about a dozen or more requests per day, or fewer if a larger job surfaces, Clark and Ford said. They alternate between using dustless blasting, chemicals and paint, the latter often requiring color mixing until they find the closest match to the surface where the graffiti sits.

The division of DPW that handles alleys, streets, lots and graffiti cleaning saw their efficiency numbers plummet in 2020 and 2021, according to a copy of the city’s fiscal year 2023 budget proposal. The division has a goal of completing 75,000 service requests total in 2022 and 82,000 in 2023, but have only met about 45,000 a year in both 2020 and 2021 (they hit close to 70,000 in fiscal year 2019 and more than 78,000 in 2018, according to the data).

The so-called public right-of-way cleaning division received $25.3 million in the fiscal year budget for 2023, down slightly from what it received the year before. The graffiti team gets about $307,000 of that, a modest increase from the year prior and up significantly from the $87,085 it received in the 2021 budget.

Clark and Ford, who call themselves “brothers in life,” have been partners on the job for about 20 years. They’ve scaled bridges and heights, restored historic monuments, even saved lives: One day in 2018, during their travels, Clark and fellow city graffiti removal employee Martine Smith helped resuscitate a woman after finding her unresponsive.

They say every day brings adventure, excitement and a chance to restore hope to people who’ve lost it. They are artists, handymen and crime fighters, all at once.

“It does stop crime; people don’t realize that,” said Ford, adding that he has personally appealed to gang leaders about where they place their tags. He and Clark have come to understand and seek out the secret language of numbers and symbols that groups will use to mark territory or send messages.

Clark and Ford said those requests usually resonate. “Once we do it, they never put it back. We know how to relate to them,” Ford said.

The team’s supervisor, Yolanda Cason, an operations manager in DPW’s special services division, said the graffiti removal unit now is composed of two groups of two. Before the pandemic, it had four squads of two.

In spite of the cutbacks, the team generally remediates each request for service within the required three-day window, Cason said, barring larger projects that require new tools or coordination with other city agencies, such as the transportation department or the historic preservation commission. And, no, they won’t touch Graffiti Alley, a Station North haven for artists to spray their paint freely.

The city removes graffiti from both private and public buildings, but private owners must first sign a waiver. Clark and Ford said many people they encounter don’t always know this service is available to them.

The partners said their years driving around town have taught them to always carry waivers to help inform residential and commercial property owners. The duo said they delight in fixing residents’ problems.

“It makes people happy,” Ford said.

By far, Mid-Town Belvedere, the neighborhood that abuts the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Mount Vernon, Station North and Greenmount West neighborhoods, sees the most 311 graffiti removal requests — though other areas might have more tags that go unreported. Trailing them is Charles North. Both had more than 800 calls each since Jan. 1, 2020.

Among the graffiti unit’s most notable projects include City Hall’s façade restoration after the 2015 unrest prompted by the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody; removing the graffiti from the Pulaski Monument in Patterson Park, which appeared in 2019; and erasing the markings that often appear on interstates 83 and 295.

“We’ve saved the city a lot of money over the years,” Clark said.

On a recent Thursday, Clark and Ford set their truck up on Covington Street in South Baltimore, outside of Digital Harbor High School, for a proactive assignment. In pink paint, a graffiti artist had scrawled a design and the words “Unity, Peace, Justice, Liberation for all Earthlings.”

Sometimes, Clark said, clearing away artists’ thoughts and feelings about the world makes him sad. But, he said, he focuses on the mission: to make Baltimore feel clean, inviting and responsive, and to convey the message that the city cares about how it looks.

Even before the backlog, Clark said the work imposed its fair share of obstacles. The Department of Public Works uses “performance goals” for its crews; graffiti teams, for example, are expected to remediate 16 service requests per day, not including the proactive assignments. The jobs can be physically laborious and difficult to remediate. And the teams have high expectations to meet.

But above all, Clark worries about who is in line to carry the legacy that he and Ford plan to leave. Both men are getting older; the power tools are getting heavier.

Cason, the operations manager, said she is busy recruiting, and hopes to staff the unit up to its original size. For now, she leans on Clark, Ford and the rest of the team to do what they do best.

“Organization, preparation and doing what you like to do makes the day goes better,” Clark said. “As long as we’re here, we’re going to do the job.”

Baltimore Banner data reporter Ryan Little contributed to this article.

Read more: